National

Japan document scandals highlight country's growing pains as a democracy: archivist

JIJI

National Archives of Japan President Takeo Kato is alarmed by the document management scandals plaguing the Abe administration and says the issue highlights Japan’s growing pains as it moves toward becoming a more robust democracy.

“It’s a matter relating to the degree of the maturity of democracy,” Kato said in an interview. “With only seven years having passed since the Public Records Management Law was enforced, the idea that public documents are part of a democracy’s key infrastructure has yet to become ingrained in public workers’ minds.”

The scandals include the Finance Ministry’s manipulation of documents related to nationalist school entity Moritomo Gakuen, which was able to buy a chunk of state land at a steep discount, and the Defense Ministry’s cover-up of activity reports written by the Ground Self-Defense Force teams Japan sent overseas for U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Kato noted that the Watergate scandal in the United States occurred over 40 years ago and that its rules on how to manage public documents gradually became well-established based on the lessons learned from repeated failures.

“Japan needs to do, in only 10 years, what the United States and Europe did over 100 years,” he said.

The government is considering devising preventive measures. Still, Kato said they are expected to be merely stopgap approaches worked out as a result of media criticism.

While there have been calls for tougher punishments, Kato said, “it remains to be seen if introducing penalties would be effective while there is no sufficient understanding about what producing public documents means.”

Kato stressed the need to change civil servants’ mindsets about the handling of documents.

Bureau chief-level officials at central government ministries and agencies had no chances to learn about document management when they were young because there was no related legislation at the time, he said.

“On this occasion, public workers of all levels need to receive training and learn the philosophy,” he said.

Regarding an argument that all email messages written by public workers should be stored, Kato said a better awareness of public documents is needed.

“Discussions on the idea of storing everything would be meaningless unless public workers have the awareness that what they write are public documents,” he said.

While being an archivist in charge of the management of public records is an esteemed profession in the U.S. and Europe, Japan lacks even a definition of such an occupation, he said.

“Fostering archivists is a pressing issue in Japan,” Kato said, adding that he is ready to help establish a reliable qualification system for the profession.

“We’ll hopefully have around 150 archivists by around the time the new building for the National Archives of Japan is completed” in fiscal 2026 as planned, he said.